Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/September 1890/Wild Horses

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WILD HORSES.

By Dr. EDOUARD L. TROUESSART.

THE primitive stock of the domestic horse has until recently been considered wholly extinct. A few more or less numerous herds of horses called tarpans are living in a state of freedom in the steppes of central Asia, but they are the descendants of domestic horses that have become wild, and do not differ much more from the domestic races of the same country than the half-wild horses of the Landes and of La Camargue, in the south of France, differ from the horse of Tarbes or the Pyrenees.

There are also found in the Asiatic steppes bands of really wild animals, the hemiones, onagras, or fertile mules of the ancients, which are not true horses, but, notwithstanding their shorter ears, more resemble the ass and mule. They are widely scattered in Asia and form three distinct species, of which the best known is the Indian hemione (Equus hemionus, var. onager), the onagra of Pallas and the ancients, the ghor khur of the Hindoos, the ghour or kherdecht of the Persians, and the koulan of the Kirghiz—a species common in zoölogical gardens, where it is easily bred.

It inhabits the Cutch or Indian Desert and the steppes of Turkistan, where the caravans going from Persia to Yarkand often meet numerous droves of these animals. Farther north and east, on the central plateau of Asia, lives the hemione of Thibet (Equus hemionus proper), the kiang or disightai of the Thibetans, which much resembles the preceding animal. Then in the southwest, in the Desert of Syria and the north of Arabia, is found the hemippus (Equus hemippus or E. hemionus Syriacus), with shorter ears and more elegant forms than the preceding animals. Prof. Henri Milne-Edwards was of the opinion that the three races of hemione were only local varieties of a single species (Equus hemionus).

North of the central plateau of Asia, the steppes of Turkistan are prolonged so as to form the Desert of Gobi, and again farther east into the Desert of Dzungaria. This region, situated immediately south of Siberia, from which it is separated by the valley of the Amoor, and north of the Thian-Shan Mountains, which separate it from China, remained almost entirely unexplored till the time when it passed from the dominion of the Chinese to that of the Russians. In this desert region the celebrated traveler Prejevalski discovered in 1881, during his last journey into central Asia, a wild horse distinct both from the tarpan and from the different varieties of the hemione.

The wild horses of this species, called kertag by the Kirghiz and takki by the Mongols, live in small herds of from five to fifteen individuals, under the direction of an old stallion. They are very suspicious, and rarely allow themselves to be approached within gunshot. They are extremely swift and easily escape the best-mounted hunters. After several fruitless pursuits, Prejevalski succeeded in bringing down a three-year-old stallion, whose remains are now to be seen in the Museum of the Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg, and which is the type of the Equus Prejevalskii of the naturalist Poliakoff.

The wild horse of Dzungaria is an animal the size of the hemione and more robust in its proportions, in which it resembles the pony. Its head is large, with ears smaller than those of the hemione, the shoulders thick, especially in the male, the limbs robust and stubbier than those of the hemiones and the asses. The mane is short and straight, and the moderately long tail is terminated by a tuft of long hairs in much more abundant supply than in the tail of the hemiones. It has warts on the hind-legs as well as on the fore-legs—a peculiarity of the horse, distinguishing it from the other species of the genus, which have warts only on the fore-legs. The hoofs are full like those of the horse, and not compressed as in the other species; and the lower parts of the legs are furnished with long hairs falling to the crown of the hoof, a feature which the hemiones lack. Likewise characteristic is the color of the pelage, a pale gray, almost white, passing into dun on the head and neck, and blending insensibly on the flanks with the pure white of the belly and limbs. The mane, the brush of the tail, and the long hairs of the lower legs and hoofs, are black. There is no trace of the dark dorsal stripe running from the mane to the tail which is characteristic of the hemione. The hairy covering is long and undulating, especially in the rigorous winter of that northern region.

The external appearance of the animal, as may be inferred from our drawing (Fig. 1), is very like that of the small horse or

PSM V37 D646 Dzungarian wild horse.jpg

Fig. 1.—Dzungarian Wild Horse (Equus Prejevalskii).

pony. It has been assumed, principally on the ground of the form of the tail, that Prejevalski's horse is a hemione. This opinion does not appear to us tenable; it is evidently founded on a begging of the question, because we have so far been ignorant of the real form of the tail of the primitive horse. The study of other wild species of the genus seems to indicate, on the other hand, that the brush form is characteristic of all the wild horses, the plumy tail and mane being acquisitions of domesticity, like the drooping ears of dogs, pigs, and goats. The tail of Prejevalski's horse is, moreover, more brushy than that of the hemiones. Proofs of another kind are derived from paleontology. There are among the representations of Equidœ of the Quaternary epoch, engraved by primitive men on reindeer-horn and ivory, discovered by M. Piette in the caves of the south of France, some very clearly representing a horse with a brush tail and short ears like those of the Prejevalski horse. Furthermore, the light-colored and uniform coating, without the dorsal stripe and not separated, by a darker tint from the white of the lower parts; the plump shape of the hoofs, and the long hairs of the lower legs, are so many characteristics separating the Prejevalski horse from the hemiones and allying it with the horse.[1]

It is therefore reasonable to assume, with Poliakoff, that the wild horse of Dzungaria is the true primitive horse, and represents the original stock of all the domestic races. That naturalist has compared the skull of this horse with those of the remains of horses in the European Quaternary, and has been led to believe in as complete an identity as possible between the two types. We know, from the researches of Nehring on the Quaternary fauna

PSM V37 D647 Syrian hemippus.jpg

Fig. 2.—Syrian Hemippus (Equus hemippus).

of central Europe, that the existing fauna of the Asiatic steppes, which is characterized by the presence of the saïga, the jerboa, and the souslik, extended into Germany and the north of France. Two species of Equidœ-form a part of this fauna—the hemione (Equus hemionus) and the wild horse (Equus caballus ferus), which is probably identical with Equus Prejevalskii.

The wild horse of Dzungaria is, of all the species of the genus, the one of most northern habitat. This fact explains why the domestic horse supports so well the winters of northern Europe, while the ass is hard to raise in the north of France, and can not live in Sweden. Furthermore, wild horses were still living, in the sixteenth century, in the Vosges Mountains, as was said by Elisée Roesslin, of Haguenau, in a book published at Strasburg in 1593: "Among the animals that are met in the Vosges, first to be noticed, which would be a marvel in many countries, are the wild horses. They keep in the forests and the mountains, providing their own support, and breeding and increasing at all seasons. In winter they hunt for a shelter under the rocks, feeding, like large game, on the brooms, heaths, and branches of trees. They are wilder and more savage than are the deer of many countries, and as hard to capture as they. Men become masters of them, as with the deer, by the aid of the lakes. When they have succeeded in taming and subduing them—a long and difficult task—they have horses of the best quality.

PSM V37 D648 Horse engraved on a bone.jpg

Fig. 3.—Facsimile of an Engraving on Bone, representing a horse with a brush tail and Erect Mane. (Cave of Lorthet-Fouilles, by M. Piette.)

These horses withstand the severest cold and are satisfied with the coarsest food. Their walk is sure, their footing firm and solid, because they are accustomed, like the chamois, to run over the mountains and leap the rocks. If the Vosges support wild horses, while the Black Forest has no such animals, they owe the privilege to their northern exposure, their sterility, and the prevalence of fierce north winds." Wild horses existed at the same time in the Swiss Alps and in Prussia (Erasmus Stella, 1518), and their flesh was eaten as in the Quaternary epoch. Unfortunately, no description or picture of these animals is left us; and although Bishop Fortunat speaks of them as onagras, he was most probably speaking of horses that had become wild—the tarpans—and not real wild horses like Equus Prejevalskii.

The engraving we give of the Prejevalski horse was made from the type of the species in the Museum of the Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg, and has been obtained from Prof. Eugen Buchner, director of the museum. It is a reproduction of the figure accompanying Poliakoff's memoir in the publications of the Russian Imperial Geographical Society.

We also give, for comparison, the figure (2) of a species of hemione, the Syrian hemippus (Equus hemippus), purposely chosen because it is the species most like the horse in its elegant form and the small size of its ears. This picture is an exact copy of a vellum in the museum, painted from life by M. Bocourt, and represents one of two individuals brought from Damascus in 1855, by M. Bourgoing, which lived for some time at the menagerie of the Paris Museum.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.


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  1. According to Herodotus, there were in his time wild horses in Scythia, on the banks of the Hypanis, which were white, like Prejevalski's horse. The Asiatic tarpans are never of as clear a color.